When talking about his 1935 Triumph Gloria Vitesse, Martin Johnson-Howe admits to having one regret – he wishes he had bought it sooner! However, after waiting 40 years to get back behind the wheel of a pre-war Triumph, he has certainly been making up for lost time.
Words and pictures: Simon Goldsworthy.
Come rain or shine, Martin Johnson-Howe and his wife Clare have been flying the pre-war Triumph flag at events both near and far from their Lutterworth home. In fact, so enthusiastic and energetic have they been in promoting the cars and the Pre-1940s Triumph Motor Club Ltd in general that Martin has already won the Dolomite Trophy two years running – an award given to to the person deemed to have done the most to promote the cars and the club over the previous 12 months. But Martin is not about to rest on his laurels and has set his sights on making it a hat-trick of wins.
Yet for all his passion, Martin is no zealous Johnny-come-lately to the pre-war Triumph cause. In fact, he bought is first Gloria, a four cylinder car, in 1966 just before he turned 17 years old. At that time people in his position were buying secondhand Minis and the like, and most viewed his choice of car as a little bit weird. But he’d been introduced to the brand by a cousin, whose father had bought him a Triumph car to stop him riding a motorbike. Martin looked up to his cousin like an older brother, and it was he who arranged the purchase of the Gloria from the club’s then Spares Officer, Martin Miles. Our Martin also joined the club, and became member no.131.
That Gloria, registered SOC 150, was a far cry from the beautiful car you see in our pictures today. In fact it had been crudely converted to a tourer, (though the 1960s fabric roof line was virtually identical to that of his current Vitesse), but when you are sitting behind the wheel of your first car, you can overlook any shortcomings. Martin’s provisional license and a tax disc arrived on his 17th birthday, and he was ready to roll.
‘Dad took me out, and that first day I really struggled with the crash gearbox,’ he admits. ‘The next day I went out with my girlfriend’s mother in her Ford Anglia and got to learn how to shift gears using its easier gearbox. Once I’d got the hang of that, the Gloria became less of a problem. I didn’t take my driving test in it though because the turning circle was so vast. Instead I had a few driving lessons with a gentleman called Terry Kirchin at the Lancaster School of Motoring, and I took the test in their Vauxhall Viva.’
Once he had his license to thrill, Martin used his Triumph as you would any car – long trips to the coast at Skegness, driving through rush hour to work, all the things many of us worry about using classics for these days, but back then of course they were just cars with a job to do. It was not entirely without problems, though. ‘Whilst driving through a village called Oadby,’ remembers Martin, ‘a grinding noise came from the gearbox when my foot came off the throttle. This was noticed by a foot patrol policeman, who stopped me and asked what the problem was. I said: “Sorry I don’t know, but I’m going straight home anyway.” The next morning I phoned my cousin and he knew exactly what it was – the Bowden cable activating the freewheel to the gearbox. He told me to disconnect the cable, find a cycle shop and get another cable the same length. He was right!’
The Gloria only lasted a year before it was rear-ended by a lorry and scrapped. But word gets around when you drive a distinctive car and soon there was a knock at Martin’s door. ‘The chap said that he had an old Triumph with a seized engine,’ recalls Martin, ‘and that I could have it if I wanted. It was a 1936 Gloria six light saloon, not a particularly attractive design but still an opportunity not to be missed.’ That Gloria was duly collected and put back on the road. It served Martin well for two or three years, before a house move extended his daily commute. Because he was also taking his mum to work, Martin’s dad thought he should get a better car and so the Gloria was sold for £65 and together they bought an Austin A50 to replace it. As Martin says, in those days you did what your parents told you, and he does admit to enjoying the Austin.
And so started the 40 year gap in Triumph ownership. Martin used to buy classic car magazines to read on the beach and dream when he went on holiday, but never got round to putting one on his drive. Then in 2009 he inherited a small sum of money from his father and figured that it was finally time to stop reading about other people’s cars and get one of his own. Obviously a Triumph Gloria was at the top of his list, but because they are so rare he also considered a Morris 8 (his grandfather had owned one of those) and joined the Triumph Razoredge Owners’ Club as another option.
He also rejoined the Pre-1940 Triumph Motor Club, reasoning that this was the only way to find the one he really wanted; in fact Martin advises that anyone in a similar position should decide what model they want and join the appropriate club for advice as well as potential contacts. As it was, he and Clare travelled all over the place looking at cars, very often being extremely disappointed with what they found. On one occasion they drove five hours to view a car, but were on their way back home within minutes. Another seller had used pictures to advertise his car that had been taken 18 years earlier!
To keep up their morale, the couple went to the VSCC 75th Anniversary Show at Malvern. The VSCC had recently opened their doors to a wider range of pre-war cars, and there were lots of Triumphs there. ‘It was reassuring to see how many good cars there were around,’ says Martin. ‘My favourite was this six cylinder Vitesse, but it was not for sale. But I had a Wanted ad running in the club magazine, and in the autumn of 2009 I got a call from the car’s owner, Tom Harvey. He was now willing to sell.
‘I had seen the car and knew that it was good, so everything came down to the price. Unfortunately, Tom had paid £20,000 for the car after its restoration, and my budget was £10-£12,000, perhaps stretching up to £15,000 at a push. I didn’t try to bargain, just thanked him for the offer and apologised that I could not stretch that far. Then, the Sunday before Christmas Tom called me to say that he knew I was a Triumph man and that this was the car I wanted, so I could have it for £15,000. I poured myself a large Scotch and then told Clare that I’d just spent 15 grand.’
The weather was bad that year and Martin was about to move house, so the deal wasn’t completed until January of 2010, but the date of January 25 is firmly etched into Martin’s memory as the Triumph arrived on a trailer like royalty, with all the neighbours turning out to watch. Straight away Martin took it out for a run, and says that he was rusty enough to make a few crunches going through the gears, but that the skills soon came back. ‘It felt smaller than I remembered, though,’ he added, ‘perhaps because I am larger! It took a little while to adapt back to the brakes and steering too, and I was very cautious to start with, but got more confident with every trip. The car has a freewheel, but I don’t use it because I am not convinced the brakes are quite good enough to do without the engine braking.’ So Martin was happy with his new toy, but as many owners will know, very often this kind of passion is not one that the rest of the family shares. And don’t forget that Clare had no teenage memories of the model to give her a more rose-tinted view of what was, after all, a car that’s fast approaching its 80th birthday. Fortunately, she seems just as smitten as Martin, saying: ‘The cabin feels closer and more confined than I am used to, but the view down that long bonnet is amazing. And I love the smell. It is a combination of leather and oil, which I like to think of as Martin’s new aftershave!’
The couple have built up their confidence in the Triumph as they have used it, though they try and avoid motorways except early on Sunday mornings and say that rush hours are not good. ‘The turning circle is the problem,’ explains Martin. ‘It is 42 feet, and you need a lot of space to get round tight roundabouts and junctions. But if you position yourself where you need to be in order to sweep round, somebody invariably cuts up the inside.’
They are generally out most weekends during the show season, which is one of the reasons for winning that Dolomite Trophy. (Their first event was at Stoneleigh in 2010 at the invitation of the Triumph Roadster Club, and the furthest trip to date was 82 miles to a show at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire, the kind of distance that Martin says makes itself felt these days, particularly in aching shoulders.) At first, Martin would always hover around the car, nervous about leaving it. ‘People do like to lean on it to have their pictures taken,’ he says, ‘and you do have to worry about scratches from rings and zips. I liked the notice I saw on one car that said: ‘You may only lean on this car if you are completely naked!” But it is gratifying how much attention my car gets. I think it is because the colour combination suits it so well, [It is really much more of a Burgundy than the red that our camera has captured in the sunlight – Ed], although the shape is obviously great too. I don’t think we have been to a show without somebody saying this was their favourite car there, and that is always nice to hear. I reckon the mascot has to be the most photographed piece of the car, and I always say that it was modeled on Clare, but that she does struggle with standing on one leg in that pose…’
One of the beauties of a car like this is that it sparks lots of conversations with strangers. True, many of them start off by asking whether it is a Riley or a Wolseley and a slightly indignant Martin has to put them right. Thank heavens it is not generally mistaken for something as lowly as an Austin or Morris! Mind you, the guys at the local garage are always willing to wind Martin up just a little – whenever he turns up for petrol, the cheeky beggars tell him that he’s too late because the scrappage scheme has already finished.
As you might expect on any car of this age, there have been a couple of issues that have needed sorting. The first was a failed head gasket while travelling at speed. There was a puff of oil, but no noise or loss of oil pressure so Martin continued driving. Then a loud clattering made him stop with his heart in his mouth. What had happened was that one of the three rocker covers had cracked, then twisted around its securing bolt until it hit the valve gear with such force that it moved the head and took out that gasket too.
‘I got a secondhand set of rocker covers, a rocker arm and a pushrod together with a remanufactured head gasket, all from the Pre-1940 Triumph Motor Club, and did the repair myself. It gave me a few sleepless nights, but I’d done all my own running repairs in the 1960s and just like mastering the gearbox, the old skills came slowly back. I was pretty nervous when it came to firing it back up for the first time, but it runs fine, even if the tappets are still not set quite right. It’s hard to do that accurately when you have fat fingers and the job requires you to hold three spanners! Still, they did always call these units the Climax Clank!’ Other issues have included collapsing wheels (which finally explained the pinging noise that could sometimes be heard when backing out of the garage – each one was another rivet letting go) and a charging difficulty that was finally traced to a dirty connection at the ammeter. But nothing has stopped the couple from enjoying their Triumph, and the social scene that goes with it.
‘I quickly volunteered as regional rep for the club,’ says Martin, ‘and found that a group of us were keen to get out more. That first show was the International Triumph Show and Spares Day at Stoneleigh was only a couple of months after getting the car. Then at the Coventry Festival of Motoring we dressed up in period for the car. You know, it’s hard to get 1930s clothes for a fat bloke, they were all so slim back then! In the end I got a striped blazer and a cravat and settled for that. At the NEC in 2011 we had a stand for the first time in 15 years and won the award for best medium sized club stand.’
So there you have it. This is a car, a hobby, a passion and a trip down memory lane all rolled into one. The 40 year gap in ownership does not appear to have dimmed Martin’s enthusiasm one jot, and now he has the benefit of sharing it with an equally enthusiastic Clare. ‘We know people who have lots of cars,’ she says, ‘but then the magic seems to go out of it and none of them are special any more. I love this car and I wouldn’t let Martin sell it.’
That is a view which is echoed by Martin. ‘I was offered £30,000 for it last year,’ he recalls, ‘which would have been a pretty nice profit in just two years. But how could we replace it? I wasn’t even tempted. After all, I’d only have to go out and get another, and I’m not waiting another 40 years for that to happen!’
Shortly after shooting this feature, Martin went into hospital for a serious operation. We are happy to say that it was a success and he is now itching to get behind the wheel of his Triumph once more – Ed